King’s ‘Letter From Birmingham Jail’ Honored at 50th Anniversary

If history is not recorded, it can be lost.

These simple words convey a profound message; one that any personal historian understands and talks about—probably on a daily basis. Most of us in this profession speak to the everyday lives of the average person. We know that everyone has a story to tell and a history to be recorded.

But sometimes even the most famous of words, or the story behind those words, can be lost if not properly documented and recorded. And so it was in Birmingham, Alabama regarding the spot where Dr. Martin Luther King wrote the now-famous “Letter From Birmingham Jail.”

On Good Friday in 1963, the Reverends Fred Shuttlesworth, Ralph Abernathy, and Martin Luther King, Jr. were arrested while taking part in peaceful Civil Rights demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama.

Most people know of the arrest; they know of the letter that King wrote while incarcerated, and they may even know that King began his letter by scribbling in the margins of the Birmingham News, the only paper he had available. What people don’t know—including many people in Birmingham—is where the old jail was located.

In his article for the statewide news website,, writer Kyle Whitmire says that lack of knowledge is understandable given changes in the city. He writes of the street that passes by the spot today:

“… it zips past Memorial Park on the right and the Birmingham city fleet maintenance shed on the left. The neon signs of about a half dozen bail bond companies blink at cars before the flow empties into Titusville and ends abruptly a half mile farther at Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. If you didn’t slow down, you might not know you drove past something important. The sign outside calls it the Birmingham Police Department Detention Division, but history has another name for it. This is the Birmingham Jail.”

Whitmire notes that the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute has a recreation of King’s cell that includes a door from the old jail, but in the decades since the Civil Rights era, the actual location where King wrote his letter has been forgotten, engulfed by the other municipal facilities that were built around and on the site.

That’s about to change as of today, April 16, 2013. Thanks to a joint project of Leadership Birmingham and Alabama Tourism, a historical marker will be unveiled at the site today. King’s daughter Bernice, who was just two weeks old when her father wrote the letter, will be among the speakers at the dedication. The Birmingham Public Library is sponsoring a reading of King’s letter, which will also be read today at more than 160 sites around the world, at schools and libraries around the South and as far away as Australia.

The powerful words written fifty years ago by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. will never be forgotten. Now the spot where he sat to write those words will also be commemorated—and remembered.

~APH: Life, Story, People~


About today’s contributor: D. Fran Morley is a freelance writer and editor who works from her home in Fairhope, Alabama, about four hours south of Birmingham. A longtime member of the Association of Personal Historians (APH), she frequently teaches workshops to help people preserve their own stories. She is also Content Editor for APH. 

1963 Civil Rights march photo courtesy Birmingham Public Library Archives

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2 Responses to King’s ‘Letter From Birmingham Jail’ Honored at 50th Anniversary

  1. Tom Morley says:

    Thanks for this story, and especially for including the link to the letter itself. It is a powerful reminder of how important words can be. Personal histories can be small intimate stories or large, incredibly historic ones, but they are all worth keeping & sharing.

  2. Thanks Fran–a “sense of place” creates a powerful connection to events of the past, both evoking memories and putting into context events we were not around to experience. Thinking about King’s words written, not at a desk, but scribbled on the edge of a newspaper in a filthy jail, is a stunning image.

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